Age - It’s Just a Number

Sabrina Barnwell MVB MRCVS on 04 February 2016

With dramatic improvements in general horse care, nutrition, veterinary and dentistry in the past 30 years many horses are living much longer. The general improvements in living standards for horses means that they are also enjoying longer careers in their chosen discipline. Whether the target is the upcoming Olympics or the Riding Club championships there is a large proportion of competing animals that are in their late teens. With our senior horse care guide, your animal should be able to compete comfortably in their early twenties.

RED MILLS Ambassador Billy Twomey and Tinkas Serenade ShowJumping at the London Olympics

Nutrition can certainly help to maximise performance of our ageing superstars. Many feeds are specifically designed for senior or veteran horses, but just because your horse has turned 16 doesn’t mean that you need to switch to a geriatric diet plan. The primary focus is to feed according to the work that the horse is doing, regardless of age.

Although the National Research Council (NRC - Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources) guidelines for the nutritional requirements does not list differences in dietary needs for horses of advancing years it is true that older horses do have different needs to the younger aspiring athletes.

Health Problems in Older Horses

If you have concerns regarding poor performance, muscle loss or general well-being the first thing to do is to contact your veterinary surgeon for a general health check to rule out problems such as

  • Cushings Disease (PPID) - most horses suffering with Cushings can be easily managed with appropriate medication and diet and often continue to compete successfully

  • Lameness and Orthopaedic diseases - as in the human population wear and tear creates some problems over the years

  • Varying degrees of immunosuppression - this is a normal feature of ageing. Improve general health by ensuring vaccinations, parasite control etc. are up to date

  • Routine dental attention is essential in all horses, and is particularly important in older horses. One study of senior horses in the UK showed 80% of the horses over 15 years had dental abnormalities. Horses teeth don’t stop growing like humans, this combined with uneven wear when eating means that some horses develop very long teeth or points on the edges of some teeth which may cause significant pain and reduce the amount of feed that the horse is eating. This may also lead to reduced chewing which in turn can increase the incidence of colic and choke

Feeding Old Horses

Fibre is a key component in any diet. Good quality forage is even more important for older horses to promote chewing and help the teeth wear properly. Fibre is also necessary for good gut function and thermoregulation, keeping the horse warm from the inside. Adding chaff to the feed bucket is a very effective and cost efficient way of adding fibre.

Muscle loss is a very common problem as the horse ages. As with show horses and growing young stock, protein in the diet is essential to develop muscle. Most horses in middle age perform to their full ability on a feed that is 10% -12% protein. As the horse gets older it may be necessary to increase the protein content of the feed to counteract muscle loss associated with aging. Many studies suggest that older horses may have decreased ability to digest protein thus increasing the need for good quality, digestible protein in the feed.

Diets containing 14% protein such as 14% Horse Cooked Mix or 14% Racehorse Cubes can be fed or add a balancer such as GROCARE Balancer to the existing feed to boost the level of high quality protein in the diet. 

Another feature of ageing is prolonged recovery times post competition. This becomes particularly relevant when horses are eventing, or travel away for a show over several days or are required to compete in several competitions over the course of the day. This is often described as the horse just losing sparkle towards the end of the competition, or being quite in the stable for a day or so after competing.

Water and electrolytes are critical for recovery and must be carefully monitored. Electrolytes can be easily administered and are very effective but absolutely must be only given to horses that are drinking plenty of water or you could risk making a bad situation much worse.

Diets that are primarily targeted at horses in intense work are often those best suited to senior competition horses. This is due to the increased protein content but also the electrolyte profile, increased levels of antioxidants such as vitamins C and E and selenium and the increased calories available. Antioxidants will improve recovery rates by reducing the damage done by free radicals which are released in the body after stress.

Senior Horse Lameness Treatment

Many older horses will show signs of poor recovery due to problems with lameness. While lameness is often caused by orthopaedic (bone) problems there may also be wear and tear and stiffness in the muscles required for working, be it medium trot or big oxers.

Horse Care 14 is a low starch diet that combines the benefits of antioxidants such as aitamin E and selenium with “super fibre” ingredients that can have major benefits for muscle health. Horse Care 14 has a dramatic effect on horses that are showing signs of tying up and so too can improve suppleness and recovery rate of muscles in older horses.

For further advice or information about our senior horse care guide contact the RED MILLS Nutrition team.

 
Tags: Old Horses Competing, Senior Horse, Tying Up